Magazine article The New Yorker

POPE PROTECTOR; VISITING DIGNITARIES Series: 2/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

POPE PROTECTOR; VISITING DIGNITARIES Series: 2/5

Article excerpt

The chief of the world's oldest and smallest army, Comandante Elmar Theodor Maeder, arrived last week for a reception at the Union League Club, without the royal-blue-and-marigold-yellow striped knickers suit for which his regiment, the Papal Swiss Guard, is best known. (His hosts had asked him to wear the outfit, but he chose to leave it in Rome.) He wore a jacket and tie, with no hat or plumed helmet. A pin bearing the American and Vatican flags was affixed to his lapel. Maeder is a tall man with a sturdy chin and the countenance of a hockey player. When he says, with a sly grin, that his charges--halberdiers--are "not all choirboys," it is easy to imagine forceful interrogations being conducted behind closed doors in the basement of St. Peter's Basilica. (What he really means is that they have eyes for the Italian girls.)

Among those who had gathered to welcome Comandante Maeder, and to celebrate the Guard's five-hundredth year of active military service, was Cardinal Edward Egan, the Archbishop of New York. Egan couldn't stay long, but he fondly recalled attending the weddings of many Swiss guardsmen when he lived in Rome. "I don't think it's really seen as a defense force," he said of the Guard.

That depends on whom you ask. Maeder and Robert Royal, according to the party's invitation, were to speak about "the transformation of an ancient army into an elite special-forces unit highly trained to provide security to the Pope in a post-September 11 world." Royal is the author of a new book, "The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard." He stood and addressed the crowd, noting that during the sack of Rome, in 1527, nearly a hundred and fifty guardsmen gave their lives to protect Pope Clement VII. "That explains to us that, from the very beginning, this is a military belonging to the Vatican," he said.

Today, the force is a hundred and ten men strong. All recruits must stand at least five feet eight inches tall, be Swiss citizens, and, according to Royal, possess a rigor of spirit known as "the Swiss mentality." They live in barracks, like regular troops, and attend basic training, in addition to taking karate and judo lessons. (The Swiss mantra: Defense first!) Unlike regular troops, they must also be practicing Catholics, and they are required to study Italian. …

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